Doctors Joan Rosenberg and Dan O’Connell have seen their share of medical emergencies.
O’Connell has had to amputate toes, sew a man’s arm back together after it had been bitten by a shark, assist in the removal an arrow from a woman’s neck after she was shot by her husband, and helped people suffering a heart attack or stroke.
Working in various rural and remote communities around the province and Nunavut, the duo are responsible for providing a wide variety of medical care to dozens of residents – the catch? They’re often working by themselves.
“One minute you’re counselling someone whose desperately sad and the next moment you’re dealing with some who had a bug crawl into their ear, and the next person has a piece of metal stuck in their eyeball,” O’Connell said.
“You never know what’s going to come in the door. You’re wandering from being a pediatrician to a gynecologist because someone’s having a miscarriage to someone whose having a baby that’s not meant to be delivered there.”
The Metchosin residents are part of the B.C. government’s rural GP locum program, in which doctors relieve those working in rural and remote B.C. and Nunavut for weeks at a time.
The duo had a family practice which they ran out of their home on Kangaroo Road for over two decades. But after working 24/7 they became worn out and found another doctor willing to take on all of their patients, so they decided to retire.
But Rosenberg and O’Connell still missed working in the medical field and saw a need for giving rural doctors well deserved relief. It was then they decided to sign up for the program.
For the past six years the duo have been travelling together and separately to mostly rural and Indigenous communities to provide care to many who very rarely have the chance to see a physician.
Depending on the community their shifts vary from eight to 10 hours or as much as 60 hours in a row, working in the clinic or hospital (both are usually close to one another).
While they usually deal with minor medical problems such as flus, there are some major ones as well.
For example, when O’Connell was working in a logging town, a man had been struck by a tree and had massive internal bleeding and multiple fractures. O’Connell had to give him all the blood in town, which was about eight litres and he was medivaced to Vancouver. The logger lived another couple of weeks before he succumbed to his injuries.
O’Connell said it’s difficult to lose patients, but acknowledging that they did the best they could under the circumstances helps him move on.
“If you miss something and get into trouble, you make sure you own it and get on with it. You just acknowledge where you’re weak and get more information,” he said.
“You just don’t have the same skills that an expert would have in the city. You feel badly, because you think ‘if I was only that good, this wouldn’t have happened.’ You also have to think ‘well, I am the best option that they have even though I’m not a specialist … It’s the reality of it.”
Rosenberg said a lot of their work has to do with repairing the relationship between Indigenous people and the health care system.
“People know a lot of the residential school system, but the hospitals were almost the exact same in the way that the Indigenous populations were treated,” Rosenberg said.
“The nuts and bolts of what we do is work with people who have chronic health problems for so many reasons that it can be overwhelming. The beauty of what we do is we don’t get overwhelmed because we take weeks off and then we come back to it and we can stay really patient and kind because that’s really what is needed in these communities. That’s where the work is.”
And they’re showing no signs of slowing down. In July, O’Connell is also heading to Masset and Rosenberg will be heading to the Nass Valley (roughly 100 kilometres north of Terrace) in July, and both will be heading to Nunavut in August.